Student-Centered Philosophies of Education

Updated on Nov 5, 2013

Student-centered philosophies of education emerged as a response to the limitations of traditional, authoritarian models of education. Instead of establishing schools as places where a fixed base of knowledge is passed from teachers to students, these philosophies encourage cooperation between students and teachers in order to find the best answers to questions facing modern-day learners. According to these philosophies—progressivism, social reconstructionism, existentialism—because the world is constantly changing, students should seek answers through hands-on, experiential learning.


The progressivism philosophy of education stresses the following:

  • Experiential learning. Progressive schools give children the chance to learn by doing. Art rooms, wood-working shops, kitchens, and science laboratories are features of progressive schools.
  • The scientific method. Students are expected to pursue answers to their questions through problem solving and critical thinking, and are rarely expected to find their answers in a book.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Rote memorization is discouraged because students don’t see what they’re doing as intrinsically valuable—they simply have to take the teacher’s word for it and work toward extrinsic results.

Progressivism in education has its roots in the philosophical criticism of European philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1689, he stressed the importance of experiential learning, writing that all reason and knowledge come from personal experience.

Rousseau also criticizes educators who teach by requiring students to merely memorize facts in his 1762 book In Emile, or On Education: “You think you are teaching him what the world is like; he is only learning the map; he is taught the names of towns, countries, rivers, which have no existence for him except on the paper before him.”

John Dewey was the American educational reformer who was largely responsible for progressivism in education as we know it. He was a strong advocate of pragmatism, preferring proven evidence over beliefs. Dewey brought pragmatism to education, asserting that a reliance on an unchanging canon of knowledge hurts a student’s ability to thrive in an ever-changing, modern world. To Dewey, progressivism in education was deeply rooted in American democracy: there was no room for authoritarian models of education in a democratic society.

Progressivism in the Classroom: The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education

In 1907, educational reformer Marietta Johnson opened her school, called “The School of Organic Education.” She believed in a more natural approach to education, one that stimulated all five senses. She thought that students shouldn’t learn about nature, for instance, by sitting at their desks and reading textbooks. Her students went outside to make and record observations, and then confirm their findings with reference materials. The school rejected the authoritarian model of education that sometimes leads students to resent school, and actively fostered intrinsic motivation for learning by creating a learning environment that kids looked forward to.

Now named “The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education,” the school is still active at its original location in Fairhope, Alabama. Students participate in experiential learning classes such as music, art, pottery, and yoga. Advocates for the school report that students willingly arrive early to classes and complain about having to leave at the end of the day.

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